Friday, April 14, 2023

A Technological and Muckraking Appendix to Postblogging Technology, December 1952: Sverdlov Envy


Sverdlov-class cruiser Admiral Ushakov in 1981

In some measure of apology to old-time Newsweek, the class namesake of the old Red Navy Sverdlov-class cruisers was commissioned on 15 May 1952, followed by Ordzhonikidize in June, Dzerzhinsky in August, and Zhdanov, Admiral Lazarev, and Aleksandr Nevsky in December.  Considering how overweight these 14,000t, 12x6" gun, 3,9" belt ships were by 1952, with so many old gun ships gone to the scrappers, this is quite the naval buildup, and would have been all the more impressive had the Stalingrad-class battlecruisers and proposed aircraft carriers not been scrapped after the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953. This doesn't completely exonerate Newsweek for detecting a battleship long since scrapped on the slips, although there might be some confusion with the Stalingrads, still two  years from completion; much less the fantastic idea that the new classes were armed with "rockets."

But as outrageous (and cool)as this story is, this post was inspired by the decades-long undeath of Henry Knowler  and the Chief of the Air Staff's incautious comment that two Transport Command Vickers 1002 would all but replace the chartered airlines in Middle Eastern trooping, and, implicitly, far exceed the capacity of the proposed RAF Britannia freighter buy. The Type 1007 was not just cancelled, clearing the way to the subsequent cancellation of the VC7, but the path to its production was swept away by the prior cancellation of the Vickers Valiant 2, the "Pathfinder" type with an improved and stronger wing structure to prevent stress fatigue in low-level operations. This cancellation was explicitly justified by the  premise that Pathfinder operations were obsolete, which is dubious to start with, and the implicit one that there was no future requirement for  low-level  V-bombers. Given that the V-bombers were switched to low-altitude penetration operations only a decade after entering service, and that low-altitude strikes remain an effective and perhaps strategically decisive operational technique today, decades after the V-bombers, but not their B-52 contemporaries, have disappeared, it all seems like almost as much of a comedy of errors as the career of Saro Aircraft.

Saro Aircraft was formed out of "British marine and aero-engineering firm" S. E. Saunders in  1929 by Alliott Verdon Roe and John Lord. Apart from giving his name to Avro, Verdon Roe will be best remembered by a certain generation of aviation enthusiasts as the first Briton to get aloft in a British-built plane, and by another as being far from the worse offender in Flight magazine's ongoing "Years ago, before the war" sweepstakes in the Correspondence page. (It's probably not fair to the writers that this particular reader doesn't care about the unidentified plane they saw on a long-abandoned airfield one day about 1911, but it is what it is.) Alliott Verdon Roe has Bertie Wooster energy, is what I'm saying. About John Lord I know nothing. Saunders was developed to exploit a plywood precursor, with a small Wolseley Motors interest. (Uh oh.) Under new management it produced some small planes in the Thirties, and won RAF business in the "light flying boat" class with the London and unfortunate Lerwick before the Air Ministry abandoned the class because the Catalina was cheaper. 

And, uhm, incredibly enough, that's it. The firm is well known for some crazy prototypes, including a jet flying boat fighter and the incredibobble Princess, but as far as commercial successes go, you've got a small sale of a small helicopter to the British Army and an even smaller one to the Bundeswehr, and the dubious returns of going all-in on the dubious commercial and military potential of the hovercraft.

When I say "incredible," I do not mean that the firm failed to find a market for its dubious products. That sort of thing  happens. When I say "incredible," what I mean is that in 1955 the Churchill government handed Saro the British space programme on the strength of their work on a mixed-power interceptor that never got anywhere, either, except to introduce the firm to rocket engines. (Again, a Bundeswehr sale was in prospect. That would have been nice.) Saro  worked with Farnborough to produce the BLACK KNIGHT, BLACK ARROW, and BLACK PRINCE, and then Britain became the only country to ever cancel its space programme after getting to space. (Oh, and BLUE STREAK, too.) I'm not, strictly speaking, blaming Saro for this, but when you look at the track record . . . 

So what has this to do with over-ambitious Stalinist naval building programmes? Wikipedia, very gingerly, points out that, in 1931, Whitehall Securities Corporation took an interest in Saunders-Roe. It happens that lots of dubious money, or, more plausibly, promises of dubious money flowed into the British aeronautical industry as it emerged from the Depression, and "Whitehall Securities" sure sounds like an implicit promise to competitors to do insider trading better than them. As it happens, the firm turns out to be the investment arm of the Pearson Group, yet another of the giant civil engineering firms entangled with the British Liberal party, and the direct owner of Airwork. The Pearson Group was far from the only company to dabble in the postwar chartered airline business, it turns out. The industry had a lot more pull than you'd expect of a bunch of oil-stained adventurers out of Biggles. And that's before Clan Lines bought Hunting, which bought Airwork. Did you know that the founder of the Cayzer fortune (that is, the family that owns Clan Lines) was the father-in-law of Lord Jellicoe? Crazy!

At this point I'm almost done the muckraking. It just remains to establish exactly when postwar air planners woke up to the possibility of low-altitude penetration. There's a sense that the Fleet Air Arm never had to be woken up to it, since there is a straight throughline Sea Mosquito>Firebrand TF >Westland Wyyern>Supermarine Scimitar>Blackburn Buccaneer, at least in the sense that the FAA's preferred solution to enemy heavy ships was to roll up their side and lob a Barnes-Wallis-inspired rolling, spinning, skipping or otherwise kinetic bomb. Supposedly the USN put the kibosh on a finalised plan to hunt up some leftover Japanese heavies and give it a try with a dedicated carrier squadron or two, but I prefer to think of them as (unusually for the USN) the voices of sanity in the whole affair. It will be noted that with the end of the Sea Mosquito and the decision not to pick up either the Short Sturgeon or Fairey Spearfish, the RN would pursue this line of development with radarless single-seat strike fighters through the "ten year rule" period that ended so prematurely on 25 June 1950. While I think that the horrendous safety record of all three models speaks for itself, there was a scheme afoot to equip the Fairy Gannet with an A-bomb, so there was at least one person at the FAA thinking inside the comfy, comfy box. Anyway, it turns out that both the Martin P6M SeaMaster and the Convair B-58 Hustler (Heh heh; he said "Hustler") programmes were underway with a low-altitude attack profile written intot he specification. The ludicrous notion that the RAF had somehow forgotten about low-level attack between 1945 and 1952 can be set aside.

I'm a little less clear about just how intense the "Sverdlov panic" was, given how insouciant the press was in the spring and summer of 1952, when the Buccaneer was approved. It seems like at that point, if anyone was talking about anything, it was the phantom menace of a vast fleet of diesel submarines. There's definitely a well-justified panic going on in December, but this is well after the summer issue of NA 39, the Naval Staff requirement for a two seat plane capable of 550kn at sea level, with a weapon load of 8000lbs, including an atomic bomb and the proposed GREEN CHEESE anti-ship missile, which soon enough fell victim to sober second thought. Aerodynamically speaking, the Buccaneer was an interesting and successful design, especially after the Mk. 2 replaced the de Havilland Gyron Junior engine with the Rolls-Royce Spey, which had the air flow needed to operate the Buccaneer's boundary layer control system that blew its flaps and maintained low altitude, low speed manouevrability. (A previous iteration on the Scimitar means that Blackburn designers were not the pioneers.)

More important in the long run than some aerodynamic innovations and the FAA's decision to extend the life of the De Havilland engine shop, was the return of the back seater, and therefore of radar-guided strike to British carrier aviation with BLUE PARROT, a development of AIRPASS, the British version of the "fire control system" concept developed for the F-94 and the USAF "1952 interceptors" in general. The English Electric Lightning was well along in development by the spring of 1952 with an integrated Air Data Computer and the AI 23 radar that became AIRPASS; the novelty of BLUE PARROT was that its use as a surface strike radar would lead into terrain-following radar

We now pause for a moment of silence for the TSR2
The Wikipedia page on terrain-following radar has as lucid a discussion of the key requirement, which is for rapid and accurate measurement of the distance from aircraft to elevated terrain, which was solved by monopulse radar which we have heard about around here before. The difference is that, although AI 23/AIRPASS was developed as a monopulse radar with an eye to the technology's anti-jamming potential as well as to work as an accurate gunsight radar in very high speed passes, BLUE PARROT was adopted from the beginning to measure the distance to the Sverdlov being lobbed at. From this capability, the proposal to measure the distance to  hills and valleys and fly up and over them, developed organically. (Wikipedia credits Ferranti engineers with just happening to notice the capability whilst testing the ability of the more powerful BLUE PARROT to measure the distance to Sverdlovs.) It also notes the need for "another system" to turn the data returned into a map. That's a lot of computing for 1960!

 No-one anywhere seems to care about boring radars, and the systems behind them barely register, but modern civilisation, and particularly ubiquitous aviation, evidently owes Comrade Stalin at least a moment of gratitude for his late-life decision to play with boats. For one thing, he mobilised enough of a lobby to actually push BLUE PARROT through into service. Given the amount of technology that the Tories managed to kneecap in the course of the Fifties, that's not nothing. 

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